‘Cancel Culture’ and the First Amendment

‘Cancel Culture’ and the First Amendment

As the Freedom Forum Institute points out, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech but not without some key exceptions, such as obscenity, defamation, blackmail, and perjury. With this in mind, it would be reasonable to view cancel culture as a multifaceted issue that cannot be clearly divided into two categories of “always good” or “always bad.” The issue is that sweeping generalizations in favor or against cancel culture – often in the form of brief, emotionally charged social media posts or polarizing rants from news commentators – tend to distort what could have been constructive conversations about what someone did, why it might be interpreted as offensive, and how common ground may be achieved. 

To better understand what cancel culture is, why it has become such a prominent issue in the U.S. and what the potential/actual consequences are, let’s explore how this controversial concept is typically understood by others and how it relates to the First Amendment. 

What is Cancel Culture?

Similar to other hyper-politicized phrases like “fake news” or even “essential workers,” there is no clear definition of what exactly “cancel culture” refers to. There are countless articles analyzing what it is, how people leverage the term in social media discourses to silence dissent or demand accountability, and what the positive/negative implications of cancel culture may be, but as of 2021, we have yet to come to a common understanding of what cancel culture means and whether it’s more of a beneficial or harmful thing for free speech. 

In one such article arguing that cancel culture does not actually exist, The New Statesman describes cancel culture as “a mob mentality, a series of mass movements seeking to end the careers of public figures whose thoughts or opinions deviate from a new set of left-wing norms.” 

If there’s not a readily agreed-upon definition of “cancel culture,” what influences different individuals’ and groups’ understanding of the term?

An in-depth study from the Pew Research Center in 2021 found that roughly 44% of the American population has heard of “cancel culture” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals’ interpretations of cancel culture varied by political affiliation as indicated in this graph:

Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The opinions expressed herein, including any implications for policy, are those of the author and not of Pew Research Center.

The aforementioned Pew Research study is well worth dedicating some time to read through yourself. It quotes several different perspectives on cancel culture and analyzes the most common rationales of those who believe cancel culture unjustly punishes people (e.g., context considerations, people are overreacting, “offensive” is a subjective concept) and those who believe cancel culture is important for holding others accountable (e.g., people should be more mindful of the consequences of what they say and social problems like racism, sexism and homophobia are brought to light).

To recap what we’ve covered so far: there’s no singular definition of “cancel culture,” and there’s little agreement among even politically-similar individuals/groups as to whether cancel culture poses more advantages or disadvantages, though it’s generally agreed that it poses some implications for freedom of speech.

Cancel Culture: Online and Offline Consequences

The aforementioned article from The New Statesmen pointed out how in spite of public hysteria surrounding cancel culture, it “rarely has real-world consequences: instead, it might result in names trending, take-down threads, and more replies to a tweet than likes.”

When former President Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter in January 2021, the Internet was in an uproar over whether such actions were part of a larger cancel culture movement or simply another instance of non-governmental entities (in this case, publicly-traded corporations) denying access to their platforms to those in violation of their terms of service. Ten months later in October, the former president launched his own social media platform called TRUTH Social, which presented some interesting implications for current discourses about cancel culture.

On the one hand, getting “cancelled” (banned from traditional social media platforms, in the case of former President Trump) makes it more challenging for these individuals to maintain the same level of public visibility as they enjoyed previously. On the other hand, the trend of well-known “cancelled” people making successful comebacks into public life suggests the consequences are not nearly as dire or permanent as the fear appeals embedded in anti-cancel culture rhetoric make them seem. 

Concerns over the potential consequences of cancel culture aren’t limited to social media, of course. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, one delegate resolution explicitly cited cancel culture as a threat to First Amendment freedoms, stating that it has “​​grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.” 

In February 2021, a state senator in California introduced two bills that would prevent employers, landlords, banks, and educational institutions from discriminating against individuals on the basis of political ideology. Melissa Melendez, a Republican, described her proposal as an effort to combat “cancel culture and the efforts to silence differing opinions and voices.” The senator did not provide examples or data to support the common claim that people have been denied goods or services on the basis of their political affiliations or beliefs, but perceptions of cancel culture remain potent in American political discourse nonetheless.

But what about everyday individuals without the wealth or name recognition that people like former President Trump, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Gina Carano, Roseanne Barr (to name a few) have? 

There’s a case to be made for individuals who may be unjustifiably “cancelled” by mob mentalities that sometimes run rampant on social media. What if someone said something deemed offensive without realizing it may be interpreted as such? What if they meant no harm and genuinely apologized after reflecting on how their words may be deeply hurtful to others? Who decides what type of cancellation is appropriate for certain words or actions, assuming cancellation is a justifiable response at all?

These are some of the many difficult questions we must consider when thinking and talking about cancel culture. On social media, debates over cancel culture are frequently laced with anger-laden words and phrases and cherry-picked examples to support “their side” of the issue, but these discussions rarely make room for thoughtful deliberation or genuine attempts to listen to alternative viewpoints. 

Social media and freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment permit us to openly publish our thoughts and feelings to global audiences on a 24/7 basis. If a queer liberal activist spends hours on Twitter denouncing Dave Chappelle for being pro-TERF (“trans-exclusionary radical feminism”) in his latest standup special, then they are free to do so. On the flip side, if a conservative Californian wants to spend hours on Facebook venting about Governor Newsom, then they are also free to do so. 

It would be a false equivalence to say that critiquing someone – especially if they’re a public figure with influence over millions of people – is the same thing as “cancelling” them (and, as mentioned previously, cancelling typically doesn’t lead to significant consequences anyway; Dave Chappelle is actively touring with large, sold-out shows and the recall effort against Governor Newsom was unsuccessful). 

However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we always should. It ultimately comes down to a question of what you deem a worthy use of your time: posting and consuming rage-filled content that reinforces destructive “us” versus “them” divides? Or perhaps it would be a better use of time and emotional energy to pause when we encounter emotionally-charged content online and thoughtfully consider the consequences of engaging with or sharing such content. 

Individuals alone don’t have enough power to combat divisions in our country, especially when it involves a vague, undefinable yet influential phenomenon like cancel culture. However, by being willing to listen to others’ perspectives, recognizing which of the infinite social media battles are worthy of your time, and using your First Amendment-given right to speak freely in ways that heal rather than divide, we can collectively reach a point where the only thing to be cancelled is cancel culture itself. 


“Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’: Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 19, 2021) https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/05/19/americans-and-cancel-culture-where-some-see-calls-for-accountability-others-see-censorship-punishment/.

Everyday Inspirations: Lessons Inspired by Edward D. Lowry

Everyday Inspirations: Lessons Inspired by Edward D. Lowry

As we gear up for our inaugural Edward D. Lowry Award Ceremony on May 21st, we’d like to take the time to reflect on the many civic-minded qualities embodied by the award’s namesake and invite you to consider how you can integrate these principles into your own life.

In addition to overcoming adversity, Ed Lowry was well-known for his tireless dedication to serving others in his community. He was a tremendous source of inspiration for countless people throughout his life, and we can continue his legacy of community service by striving to engage in everyday acts of inspiring courage, service and advocacy.

Encouraging Volunteerism

Ed Lowry was a committed volunteer who consistently went above-and-beyond what anyone could’ve expected from just one person. Ed didn’t simply volunteer for organizations he was personally passionate about; he leveraged his voice and expertise to inspire others to get involved in volunteering as well.

As we gradually move towards some semblance of “normal” in 2021, ask yourself how you can get more involved in supporting community organizations through volunteer opportunities. Maybe you already volunteer once per month for one-day/weekend events such as local park or beach clean-ups, healthcare clinics, food pantry or soup kitchen preparations, exercising dogs for the local animal shelter, collecting supplies for low-income folks, or any of these virtual volunteering opportunities. Do you reach out to others and encourage them to get involved too?

Volunteering doesn’t have to be exclusively performed through an organization, of course. Helping neighbors with groceries, driving seniors to medical appointments or offering to babysit for a busy parent are some of the many ways in which a small action on your part can make a big difference in the lives of others.

Fundraising for Worthy Causes

If your schedule is packed or you have ongoing concerns about Covid-19, there are ways to help others in your community even if you’re not involved in hands-on volunteer efforts. By spreading the word about donation drives and other fundraisers on social media, email or video calls with family and friends, you could create a ripple effect for fundraising initiatives that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t shared this information with others in the first place.

For more information on supporting donation drives, GoFundMe published this great list of 25 fundraiser sharing strategies to help you get more creative in your efforts to raise money for organizations and causes you care most about.

Engaging in Civic Advocacy

As a strategic advisor for First Amendment Voice, Ed Lowry was well-known for inspiring others to become more civically engaged in their communities.

Ways to get involved in civic advocacy include:

At FAV we know that you are probably doing many of these things already. Keep up the great work, just like Ed did his entire life, and you will enjoy the satisfaction that comes from serving with purpose and meaning.

Our Opportunity to Move Forward Together

Our Opportunity to Move Forward Together

By Councilmember Chris Duncan

Reprinted with permission from Chris Duncan. This article originally was printed in San Clemente Times, (March 4, 2021).

Our natural instinct in these times is to find like-minded souls to take us in, assuage our self-doubt, and tell us the “other side” is the source of our inner turmoil.

In coffee meetings, YouTube chats, and Facebook groups, the urge is strong to sort ourselves into competing factions, all bent on protecting “us” from “them” by denigrating those who see things differently.

Fear and frustration manifest as grievance against a mythical “they” who have gained from our side’s loss. Like a drowning swimmer off Lost Winds, we pull each other under to save ourselves.

This animosity, while comforting in the short run, is not the answer. We San Clemente residents will not, and should not, agree on everything. Vigorous debate results in a better functioning democracy, because the best ideas will withstand the toughest scrutiny.

But while we may disagree with our fellow citizens on the issues, we must not assign them evil intent. That is easier said than done, especially right now. National news outlets and social media companies, which profit off our divisions, tell us the stories we want to hear, not those we need to hear, and relentlessly demonize the “opposition.”

Your neighbor is not your enemy, but it is easy to believe he or she is. I know, because I am as susceptible to making rash personal judgments as the next person. It feels soothing for an instant to vilify someone who thinks differently, or worse, label them a bad person. But personal attacks only make us feel more bitter and alone, and in the long run, corrode our public discourse.

 It doesn’t have to be this way. Each of us is responsible for changing the narrative. Our future generations are counting on us to make decisions today that will enhance our city’s prospects, not drive a wedge through it.

If we acknowledge that our own insecurities are often the source of our unease, we can avoid trying to find faults in others to make ourselves feel better. Through this acceptance, we can lift the invisible walls that separate us and come together to achieve the goals we share.

I believe we are in a unique position to make this happen. As tragic as COVID-19 has been, it has forced us to unify around beneficial practices we previously overlooked, like dining outdoors, enjoying our beautiful environment, and being more present for our kids.

As we emerge together from the pandemic, having defeated the virus and preserved our way of life through our collective diligence and mutual goodwill, we have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage this unity to tackle other challenges that seemed out of reach.

Stopping the toll road, saving our beaches, ending homelessness in town. These are all possible if we direct our energy toward solving the problem instead of endlessly critiquing fellow problem-solvers.

But this opportunity is fleeting. If we do not act now, it will pass us by. And a year from now, when things are back to normal, we may forget what is possible if we act in unison.

San Clemente is an extraordinary town, but I am convinced our best days are ahead of us. It is up to each and every one of us, including the five us on the city council, to release the baggage of contempt and blame, appeal to the better angels of our nature, and replace character smears with substantive, fact-driven discussion. Only then will our Spanish Village reach its full potential.

Chris Duncan is a San Clemente city councilmember who was elected in 2020.

Lessons on overcoming adversity after one year of the pandemic

Lessons on overcoming adversity after one year of the pandemic

One of the qualities encapsulated in First Amendment Voice’s Ed Lowry Memorial Award for Citizenship is a person’s ability to overcome setbacks and strive on in the face of adversity. Many of us are no strangers to adversity, especially after one of the most challenging years in recent public memory.

Rather than dwelling on the negative events that happened in 2020 and continued into 2021, we’d like to take this as an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what adversity is and what we can do to change the ways in which we view and overcome adversity.

What is Adversity?

Adversity is generally described as serious and/or ongoing difficulties and misfortune. It can involve anything from physical, mental or emotional struggles of an individual to the social, legal or economic setbacks experienced by a wider group. Most people face some kind of adversity at many points in their lives, but the extent of the problem and the individual or group’s capacity to remain resilient in the face of adversity varies widely.

Pause for a moment to reflect on how adversity has appeared in your own life over the past year. What challenges have you faced, and how did you successfully overcome them? Which personality traits do you credit for your ability and willingness to strive onward in spite of the obstacles in your way? And if some of these adverse circumstances are still ongoing, what can you do today to resolve them?

Of course, not all types of adversity are resolvable through sheer determination by an individual. While the U.S. has long-embraced the cultural value of personal responsibility and ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,’ it’s important to remember that adversity is often caused by factors outside of our control (such as the pandemic and all the related consequences it has brought with it).

With this in mind, we should renew our focus on being empathetic towards others because we never know what someone might be going through behind the scenes. We can’t control others’ responses to conflict and adversity, but we can compassionately support them and find commonalities in our unique, yet similar struggles.

Reframing Adversity as Opportunity

As former First Lady Michelle Obama said in a college commencement speech in 2016: “You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”

As we discuss in-depth in our FAV-exclusive white paper, some of the best strategies for adjusting our expectations to upsetting or challenging situations involve self-distancing and cognitive reframing. In a nutshell, these techniques involve consciously viewing adverse situations as opportunities for growth and actively identifying which factors are within our control to drive positive changes in our lives.

For example, someone who is laid off could reframe job loss as an opportunity to find more meaningful employment elsewhere, perhaps with a more agreeable boss, better benefits, and greater job satisfaction. We’re not suggesting that you should only look at the bright side when confronted with adversity; it’s a natural human response to feel anxious, disappointed or angry when presented with a seemingly impossible obstacle to overcome. However, you also can’t let yourself get too caught up in the negativity if you genuinely hope to overcome adversity, so reframing how you think about a problem – as an opportunity rather than a disadvantage – is essential for overcoming setbacks in any area of your life.

Does the First Amendment cover citizen journalists?

Does the First Amendment cover citizen journalists?

73650726_MIt’s a fair question: who, exactly qualifies as a “journalist” these days? Can just anyone be considered a journalist, or are there certain educational and professional requirements involved? Do “citizen journalists” — everyday folks equipped with smart phones who are in the right place at the right time —count as journalists?

As Professor William E. Lee pointed out, “Anyone can be a journalist and they don’t need an affiliation with an established outlet…it’s increasingly important that unaffiliated journalists know they have the same legal protection as a reporter at a newspaper. It’s significant for the development of alternative forms of expression that do not fit neatly in our traditional concepts of speech or press.”

We could argue about who is and who isn’t a journalist all day, but there’s a bigger problem at hand: How does the First Amendment currently protect so-called “citizen journalists,” and what can be done to improve their free press freedoms? Let’s examine some of the concerns we have about citizen journalism:

Prosecuting Citizen Journalists

In 2017, Georgia citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale was convicted of a misdemeanor charge related to obstruction while filming a 2014 campaign rally that was publicly advertised but located on private property. When campaign organizers demanded she stop filming the event, Tisdale refused and was forcibly removed from the property. While she was acquitted of more serious felony charges, even the misdemeanor conviction could be a serious blow to citizen journalists’ rights around the country.

Around the world, citizen journalists are under attack. Many politicians and members of the public claim they’re not “real” journalists and therefore shouldn’t receive the same rights and protections as reporters from established media organizations. Many citizen journalists have faced threats, harassment and even arrest, as in the case of Priscilla Villarreal.

Are these incidents proof that the First Amendment rights of these citizen journalists are being violated, or are these incidents proof that citizen journalists do not and/or should not receive the same treatment as professional journalists associated with established news outlets? Perhaps only time (and many more legal battles) will give us any clarity on these issues.

Freedom of Expression Alternative?

As UNESCO points out, citizen journalists ought to receive similar protections as “established” and “professional” journalists in order to ensure freedom of expression for all citizens. Thanks to online publishing platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, YouTube and other social media channels, there are far fewer restrictions and obstacles preventing everyday people from reporting on local events, video-taping law enforcement and broadcasting images, audio and video about natural disasters happening in their communities.

Since we are increasingly reliant on citizen journalists to cover small and major events alike, they certainly should receive the same press freedom protections as professional journalists. The question that remains now is: How can we ensure citizen journalists, who may not have media badges and credentials and expensive-looking equipment, are given equal access to reporting opportunities as their professional counterparts?

3 proven ways to stay calm in a heated argument

3 proven ways to stay calm in a heated argument

DNU - FAV Blog Post Graphic CANVAConflict is an inevitable part of living in human society, but interpersonal conflicts seem to be particularly emotionally-charged in the U.S. nowadays, regardless of whether you’re arguing about politics, finances or other areas of dispute in our daily lives.

If you find yourself getting upset and angry (or perhaps shutting down and shutting others out), you might want to try employing these three proven strategies for maintaining calm in heated arguments:

Focus on Your Breathing

There have been countless studies conducted on the psychological and physiological benefits of breathing, and the results are fairly consistent: slow, deep breathing techniques are proven to reduce your heart rate, increase your comfort and mental alertness, and reduce arousal, anxiety and anger.

When engaged in a heated argument, focusing on your breathing (and your body overall) can help you maintain physical and mental calmness. As silly as it may seem to have to practice something all humans do naturally and unconsciously throughout our daily lives, practicing breathing techniques is the only way to experience the full benefits. Without a keen sense of self-awareness achieved through consistent practice, it may seem like deep breathing doesn’t help much. In reality, this is one of the best ways to stay calm in a heated argument.

Engage in Reflective Listening

Reflective listening involves genuinely paying attention to another person’s words, feelings and nonverbal expressions in an attempt to understand where they’re coming from (which is a core component of empathy). When you’re engaged in reflective listening, you shouldn’t interrupt the other person — no matter how much you might want to. Instead, offer brief forms of acknowledgement, such as “m-hmm,” “go on,” “oh really?” or even just a simple head nod or change of facial expression to signal that you’re actively listening.

Reflective listening requires a considerable amount of self-awareness and self-control, which also relate to the concept of motivated reasoning that we previously wrote about.

Consider the Consequences

When you’re involved in an interpersonal conflict, consider how much you value the person versus how much you value your position on a given matter. If this argument continues and heads in a more negative direction, is it worth sacrificing the stability of your relationship with this person in order to vocalize your viewpoints and attempt to win them over?

With this in mind, consider the potential outcomes of an argument. Is it over a relatively minor issue (in the overall scope of your life) or is this a major problem with potentially life-changing consequences? Is the person/group involved worth the time and emotional energy you’re putting into arguing with them? If so, would you still want to argue with them if there was a 0% chance that they would ever change their mind?

The questions above ask you to consider your relationship with the person(s) you’re arguing with, the issue you’re divided over, and the potential consequences that may result from the conflict. When involved in a heated argument, it’s easy for us to get tunnel vision and ignore these important considerations in order to focus on “winning,” but this is rarely an effective strategy for actually changing people’s viewpoints and maintaining healthy relationships with them at the same time.

For more information on improving your constructive communication skills, be sure to download the new white paper on our website.